This past Sunday was both an auspicious and sobering time to visit the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence. The euphoria of Friday’s United States Supreme Court decision confirming same-sex marriage as a civil right was still fresh, a seeming reassurance that the arc of history does in fact bend towards justice. In the midst of this celebratory atmosphere, Isibonelo/Evidence was jarring, demonstrating the brutal separation between political liberty and the realities of personal life. In the introductory wall text, curators Catherine J. Morris and Eugenie Tsai write: “South Africa’s constitution was the first in the world to abolish discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the first country in Africa (and only the fifth in the world) to legalize same-sex marriage.” But the civil liberties of LGBTI (the acronym used in the exhibition, in which the “I” stands for “intersex”) South Africans begin and end on paper; Muholi’s work chronicles the horrors endured by these communities, with a focus on lesbians and transgender people.
The first room of Isibonelo/Evidence (“evidence” is an approximate translation of the Zulu word “isibonelo”) is laid out in three parts. One wall documents a 10-year chronology of hate crimes against the LGBTI community in South Africa. A brutal example: In Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape Province), September 2014, “Skhumbuzo Harold Mkefile (25), an openly gay man from Kwa Noxolo section, is raped, his ear cut out, and a substance inserted through his buttocks. His half-naked body is discovered by a passerby in Booysens Park, in a field surrounded by bloody rocks and stones. His head is reportedly smashed.”
The opposing wall shows handwritten messages, collected by Muholi from members of the LGBTI community. Some are hopeful: “We Are You” in strong, block lettering. Others, devastating: “The coach said he doesn’t like me as a lesbian and he wants me as his wife so that I can stop being a lesbian … when I said ‘no’ and tried to leave, he beat me with a straightened clothes hanger. Then he raped me many times, all night.” As much as she is an artist, Muholi is also a record-keeper of hate crimes, daily violence, and societal indifference.
The room’s third wall space features three stacked rows of photographic portraits, including a self-portrait of the artist. Muholi’s subjects appear self-styled, presenting themselves as they are, or in some cases, perhaps as they wish to be. These works evoke both fashion portraiture — a touch of the expression-driven attitude of Richard Avedon, though less crisp — and the patterned milieus of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta. Muholi’s style is not particularly original, but as an assembly her photographs present a nuanced multiplicity of lesbian and transgender South African identity. And her inclusion of herself in the community she documents lends the work a personal intimacy, rather than a (potentially) exploitative outsider’s gaze.
Isibonelo/Evidence suffers from the circuitous layout of the Sackler Center, where it is installed. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party permanently takes up the center of the exhibition space, forcing Muholi’s show to wind around in three narrow rooms. Perhaps because of this carved-up arrangement, the second and third sections of the exhibition feel somewhat disjointed from the first. The second space, featuring Muholi’s Weddings series, abruptly reverses the mood, from somber to joyful. The exhibition text explains: “Besides the dramatic portraits and disturbing headlines in the first gallery, these works affirm the normalcy of LGBTI life.” And while they do, it’s hard to reconcile colorful, euphoric wedding portraits with narratives of torture. The third space continues this dark/light dichotomy, featuring both a video of a wedding celebration and a funeral casket containing a self-portrait of Muholi. Unfortunately, the exhibition’s separated sections, combined with the thematic contrast of extreme sadness and jubilation, work against normalizing a lived experience. With a more even integration of the portraits, Isibonelo/Evidence could have better demonstrated how these communities find ways to thrive amid daily oppression and danger.
Nonetheless, I can only reluctantly criticize Isibonelo/Evidence. Muholi’s work is as much social justice advocacy as art, and as advocacy it unequivocally succeeds. I was reminded of Erik Eckholm’s recent New York Times article “Next Fight for Gay Rights: Bias in Jobs and Housing,” which quotes Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley on the need for more extensive civil rights laws that protect LGBTI communities: “People are going to realize that you can get married in the morning and be fired from your job or refused entry to a restaurant in the afternoon.” Isibonelo/Evidence, which contains so many reminders that law is empty without enforcement, is a timely warning against complacency.
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through November 1.